California is first to unveil plan to live with virus; 'stealth omicron' could be more dangerous than initial version: COVID-19 updates

As other states continue to drop mask mandates, California is taking bolder steps in the fight against COVID-19, acknowledging the coronavirus may not go away but laying out a plan to manage and live with it.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday announced the first shift by a state to an “endemic” approach to the pandemic that emphasizes prevention and quick reactions to outbreaks over mandates, a milestone nearly two years in the making that harkens to a return to a more normal existence.

"We have all come to understand what was not understood at the beginning of this crisis, that there’s no ending, that there’s not a moment where we declare victory,’’ Newsom said.

Instead of trying to extinguish the virus, Newsom said the state would transition away from crisis mentality and focus on preparing for the inevitable twists COVID-19 may present in the future.

His administration has devised an easy-to-remember acronym for the new strategy: SMARTER, which stands for Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing, Education and Rx, the last of which refers to prescription medications for COVID-19.

California ended indoor mask requirements for vaccinated people Wednesday and will announce Feb. 28 how long the mandate for schools will remain in place.

The approach moving forward will emphasize increased vaccination and testing, fighting misinformation, stockpiling medical supplies and flooding areas of virus surge with temporary medical workers. The plan also calls for boosting the state’s surveillance, including increased monitoring of virus remnants in wastewater to watch for the first signs of a surge.

California's new direction is in line with recent comments by presidential adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, who told Reuters in an interview that as the omicron wave recedes the U.S. must balance the need to protect the population with growing pandemic fatigue and begin moving toward normalcy. Weekly new infections are at their lowest point in two months.

"The world and the United States, and particularly certain parts of the United States, are just up to here with COVID, they just really need to get their life back," Fauci said. "You don't want to be reckless and throw everything aside, but you've got to start inching toward that."

Also in the news:

►Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said listening to student input should be one of the key elements of using the pandemic as a "reset button'' to consider the best approaches to teaching.

►Concerns that an anime convention in New York City last November may become a superspreader proved unfounded, according to the CDC, which said Thursday that masking, vaccination and good ventilation limited the number of infections to 119 among the estimated 53,000 who attended the three-day event.

►Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the state would drop its mask mandates for all, including schools, by March 21.

►Adidas dropped its mandatory vaccination requirement for U.S. employees, citing the Supreme Court’s decision to block the proposed federal requirement. "Though no longer required, we strongly encourage all employees to be vaccinated," the company said in a statement to USA TODAY.

►The U.S. on Wednesday reached 100,000 reported COVID-19 deaths for 2022, John Hopkins University data shows. The 100,000th death of 2020 was reported on May 23 as the first wave was ending. The 100,000th death of 2021 was reported Feb. 2.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 78 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 930,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 419 million cases and over 5.8 million deaths. More than 214 million Americans – 64.5% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘 What we're reading: Every week, the CDC updates its list of countries that should be avoided due to COVID-19 risk. After nearly two years of living in the pandemic, travelers are ignoring the agency's guidance.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

'Stealth omicron' potentially more harmful than initial version, study says

A subvariant of omicron that the CDC says is 1.5 times more contagious than its better-known cousin has quietly been making its way to dozens of countries and U.S. states, living up to its nickname of "stealth omicron.''

A new study from Japan says it's worthy of more attention and even its own Greek alphabet letter.

The research, found the BA.2 lineage of the original omicron (BA.1) is not only more infectious but also more pathogenic – capable of producing disease – and more resistant to immunity derived from previous infection.

"Our multiscale investigations suggest that the risk of BA.2 for global health is potentially higher than that of BA.1,'' researchers said.

It should be pointed out the scientists relied on data from lab experiments with hamsters, which might not directly translate to humans. And experts believe the current vaccines, when combined with boosters, offer strong protection against severe disease from both versions of omicron, which has proved to be more transmissible but less virulent than its predecessor delta.

The CDC says omicron BA.2 makes up just 3.9% of the coronavirus cases sequenced in the U.S., compared to 96.1% for BA.1. But the "stealth omicron'' has become dominant in countries like South Africa – where the variant was first identified – India, the Philippines, Austria, Denmark and Singapore.

At the very least, researchers say BA.2 should stand on its own and be recognized as a variant of concern.

"Our data indicate that BA.2 is virologically different from BA.1,'' they say, "and raise a proposal that BA.2 should be given a letter of the Greek alphabet and be distinguished from BA.1, a commonly recognized omicron variant.''

Police sweep into gridlocked Ottawa as trucker protest drags on

Busloads of police officers descended on downtown Ottawa on Thursday, handing out warnings to protesters to abandon the three-week demonstration where more than 300 parked trucks have clogged streets and angered many residents of the Canadian capital. Work crews began erecting fences outside Parliament, where embattled Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that it was '"high time these illegal and dangerous activities stop."

Some of the Freedom Convoy protesters were unmoved. Pat King said he was prepared to "watch them hit me with pepper spray." He dismissed threats to have the trucks towed away, saying tow truck operators won't touch the parked vehicles.

California now set to move from pandemic to endemic

California officials on Thursday will unveil a plan for coexisting with the coronavirus, which scientists say could last for years. The plan presumes the state is entering an endemic stage, where the virus still exists in the community but becomes manageable as immunity builds. This week California lifted its latest indoor masking mandate, and officials said they would announce at month's end when the mask requirement for schools would be dropped.

“The focus is going to be being prepared and being ready,” said California’s health secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly.

Institute: 73% of Americans are immune from omicron

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimates that 73% of Americans are currently immune to the omicron variant, a number that means future surges would create far less disruption to society, some experts say.

The institute figures that about half of eligible Americans have received coronavirus booster shots, plus there have been close to 80 million confirmed infections – and many more that have never been reported. All good signs in the battle for immunity. The IHME estimates the immunity percentage could reach 80% by mid-March.

The notion of a “herd immunity” that could bring the pandemic to a screeching halt has disappeared amid variants, waning immunity and vaccine hesitancy among millions of Americans. But the immunity numbers should prevent or lessen new illnesses in protected people and reduce the amount of virus circulating overall, likely easing the brutal impact seen in previous waves, experts agree.

“I am optimistic even if we have a surge in summer, cases will go up, but hospitalizations and deaths will not,” said Ali Mokdad, a UW professor who works on the institute model that calculated the 73% figure.

200 million free, at-home tests have arrived at U.S. homes

More than 50 million American households have received free at-home COVID-19 testing kits that started going out in late January, according to a White House official. “85% of the initial orders are now out the door. And in the next several days, we will complete the shipping of all of the initial orders,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said at a news briefing Wednesday.

The Biden administration ordered 1 billion tests to be sent through the U.S. Postal Service to Americans who sign up through COVIDTests.gov. Each household was eligible for four at-home tests, regardless of the number of household members.

The U.S. Postal Service said tests will ship within seven to 12 days of ordering, and all orders are mailed through First-Class Package Service, but many Americans who ordered tests as soon as they were available Jan. 18 have still not received an email with tracking information once their order has shipped.

“Once the package ships, over 60% are delivered within 24 hours and 90% within 48 hours,” Zients said.

Organ transplants break records in 2021, despite challenges set by COVID

During the first year of the pandemic, organ transplants plummeted by half. But the dearth didn't last for long.

Last year, a record-breaking 41,354 transplants were performed, according to preliminary data from United Network for Organ Sharing, the first time the U.S. has ever exceeded 40,000 transplants. Dr. Matthew Cooper, president of the UNOS Board of Directors, said the organization continues to see transplantation “increase substantially."

Despite obstacles created by the pandemic, a harmonious combination of technological advancements, cooperation between medical facilities and solidarity among Americans drove up lifesaving transplants in 2021, experts say.

A summary of data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network shows donors with resolved COVID-19 who still test positive 21 to 90 days after the disease onset are unlikely to transmit the infection. So far, the CDC has reported only three cases of donor-derived COVID-19 to lung recipients.

There have been no cases of COVID-19 transmission to nonlung recipients.

– Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California unveils 'SMARTER' plan to live with virus: COVID updates